Wuwei is probably the most inspired concept in all of human history. Laozi coined this term in the Dao De Jing, and it is indeed the central theme of the text. Laozi did not develop the basic cosmogony of Daoism – the waxing & waning of yin & yang was already well understood long before, and numerous other Daoist theories & practices are not necessarily inspired by Laozi. What Laozi presented was wuwei – how the Dao functions in the world and how the sage conducts himself. Although this term is important in all Daoist traditions, different traditions have different interpretations of what it means. Let’s look at the old characters* from the perspective of our tradition.
The old character for wu (無) shows a person (人) holding wood (木) in either hand. Perhaps because of the homophones for shaman (巫) and dancer (舞), it is typically understood as a dancing shaman holding ritual sticks. I also see a person in the forest – a homeless hermit with nothing to his/her name, or a person holding “the uncarved block” – grasping unmanifest simplicity. I also notice the entire character conveys the image of fire (火), and the modern traditional character places the radical for fire (灬) at the bottom, so the image of burning wood (i.e. transformation) may be important to understanding the meaning of wu. Taking the gestalt of these images, I see a homeless shaman-sage conducting a ritual dance in order to transform or banish something. The image is of ritual practice transforming something from one state to another. This ritual represents what Hindus call the dance of Shiva. What Brahma creates, Shiva destroys. Shiva is not a devil; Shiva is that aspect of Dao that moves things along – transformation through destruction. So wu means emptying things out, purging and moving them along, sending spirit up and leaving only ashes below. It can also mean having nothing – no home or belongings, no agendas or delusions. Wu is commonly used to denote nothingness or the lack of something.
The old character for wei (為) shows a claw above an elephant. Whereas hand (手) represents skillful activity, claw (爪) implies exertion of force. In ancient China, elephant (象) symbolized strength and intelligence. So wei means cleverly wielding strength – deliberate, intentional activity undertaken in order to achieve some result. Leading the elephant where you want it to go. The character for elephant also means form or appearance, so another meaning could be to claw at appearances, which also implies exerting force to get something. Most of Daoism throughout history has indeed consisted of undertaking intentional methods in order to achieve specific results. Interestingly, when the character for person is added to the left, it generates another character wei (偽) that means false pretense, artificial, or contrived. I think wei also suggests the magical “getting what you want” practices that exist within Daoism.
What does it mean when we put these two words together? The Dao De Jing has no punctuation marks and the language is very terse, so terms like wuwei can be read separately as wu & wei or together as a single concept. Some schools interpret wuwei as using emptiness (wu) in order to achieve certain results (wei); others interpret it as using intention (wei) in order to push things along to another state (wu). In our tradition, we view wuwei as a single concept that describes the way nature functions.
Wu is our state before birth. Before our mother & father were born, what were we? Long after our children pass away, what are we? In our practice, we become intimate with the nothingness that precedes, underlies, and outlasts our lives. Our tradition notes that no matter how much effort (wei) we apply in shaping the world to meet our desires, wu always comes along and transforms our creations back into nothingness. Even if we make some huge mark on the world, eventually that mark passes away. Wuwei invites us to try something different. What would it be like to apply wu to our wei? Extinguish all effort. Abandon strength and cleverness. This shift opens up the possibility of relating to the world (and to our practice of meditation & qi-cultivation) in a different way. Relating without struggle & strain.
Wei is based on wanting things to be other than they are. Wuwei is accepting things as they are, adjusting to the continuous transformations of nature. Laozi’s practice is not about getting what we want but relaxing into the way things are.
Wuwei is how we come into the world and how we grow and change and return. Wuwei is how water flows downstream, how clouds form and break apart, how trees grow and blow in the wind. Nature functions through wuwei – the birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death of myriad worlds & creatures is not driven by intention and effort. It just happens. Like good art. The ritual image of wu suggests personal engagement in this natural process.
Laozi said: “wuwei but not buwei” – wuwei is not “doing nothing” as a direct translation might suggest. Daoism includes various active practices of hygiene, meditation, & ritual. But Laozi’s tradition does not focus on practicing particular methods so much as on how we practice whatever we are practicing. Wuwei invokes a qualitative shift away from struggle & strain, finding natural ease in our conduct moment-to-moment. Retract the claws and dance with Shiva.
*image source: Richard Sears – thank you!